Before I begin this post, I need to include a disclaimer: Until this month, writer’s block crippled my songwriting for six years. The last song I wrote was “Irish Blood” back in 2011. For eleven years, I worked to develop my songwriting process. While I don’t know what happened along the way, I do have an idea of why I stopped songwriting. My mission became figuring out how to get back into it. The road has been long, but I think it’s safe to say the songwriter in me is back.
During my years of writer’s block, I tried everything. I spent hours watching YouTube videos on songwriting, reading blogs, and downloading podcasts. Listening to successful songwriters share their best tips and advice did not help me until a few months ago. One of the podcasts I downloaded interviewed Beth Nielsen Chapman and she talked about creativity and her own bouts of writer’s block.
Even though I never completed a song during my years of writer’s block, I never stopped generating ideas. The crate beside my bed is filled with journals I’ve kept all this time. The songwriter in me kept writing and Beth helped put this in perspective.
How I Began Songwriting
I have always loved writing. My favorite subjects and classes all throughout my education involved writing. Under my bed I kept journals and notebooks for stories, poetry, and the typical daily entries of child and adolescent diary entries.
I began playing the violin in fifth grade, but didn’t start writing music until I learned guitar at the age of 18. Some of my journals had lyric-like poetry, but the music and songwriting didn’t come until I was in my early twenties.
Most of my early songs are what songwriters would consider ‘throw aways songs’ — songs that are important because they keep you writing and allow you to develop your style. To be quite honest, these songs suck, but they are necessary. Every songwriter needs to start somewhere.
I would like to note every early song I’ve written has not been thrown away. There’s always editing and re-writing, which is like restoring an old piece of curb furniture into a beautiful conversation piece. Sometimes when I’m stuck and can’t come up with anything new, I return to old songs and see what kind of magic I can perform.
Essential Elements of My Songwriting Process
Some songwriters have a specific process; a guaranteed workflow that is successful every time. I am not that songwriter. Ideas have come to me when I’m driving, listening to other songwriters perform, and at night before I fall asleep. For me, the creative process is less process and more random moments of ideas. Sometimes they take form and evolve into songs, but sometimes they don’t.
When I’m in songwriting mode, I certainly do have key components to fuel my creativity. Here are a few of these:
A Songwriting Sanctuary
One of the most important pieces of my songwriting process is the “sanctuary” I create. When I was learning to play guitar, I lived in the upstairs of my mom’s cape cod. If I wasn’t sitting on the floor of my bedroom, I was sitting at my desk. For me, there is something about burning candles and a dimly lit room to bring out my inner songwriter.
My inner songwriter came alive when I moved to Alaska. I was always writing down song ideas, lyrics, poetry, and documenting my experiences. When I would return to my tiny studio apartment, I used my guitar case as my desk. The floor in front of my closet door was my sacred space to put all my ideas into music. It was in this spot I wrote Someone Else’s Small Town and Christmas Without You — which Kentucky Public Radio featured the year after I moved back to Wisconsin.
Returning to Wisconsin unleashed a songwriting beast. A miserable, depressed, and ornery beast. In the years to follow the move, my music reflects the place I was in. Figuratively and literally. My apartment was a slum property that I’m shocked is still standing and not yet condemned. The sanctuary I created within this hell hole took a lot of paint and a significant amount of cleaning to make it livable.
Usually I don’t pick my sanctuary, my sanctuary finds me. I found my place at the desk in my bedroom. A few times the kitchen table grabbed my attention and inspired some songs.
I moved around La Crosse quite a bit. Different apartments, various roommates. In each space, I’d find my songwriting spot.
Over the last few years, it’s been more challenging to find this space. Moving into my current place seems to have changed this. My current writing sanctuary is my kitchen table with the skylight above me.
Must Have Guitar On My Lap
Questions people ask songwriters:
Do you write the music and melody first? Do you write lyrics first? Do you start with the verse? Do you start with the hook? Chorus?
I usually start with the guitar on my lap and go from there. Each song comes about from its own place. There have been some songs I started with a melody and lyric line in my head. There have been times I have written songs from the title.
There is not a set way I write songs. Sometimes when I’m driving, I turn the radio off and create my music. This is how I wrote Hell and Stumbling is No Way to Walk. For both songs, I had all the lyrics written in my head with the melody and came home and actually put the music to it. Writing this way for me is fairly rare, but I do seem to get many ideas while I’m driving long distances by myself.
There’s no other way to sum up my writing process than saying it’s messy. I’m quirky, so of course my songwriting is going to follow suit. When I write a song, I need pen and paper. Not just any pen, though. I need a higher quality pen — a pilot G2, Pentel EnerGel pen, or a good ballpoint pen that doesn’t blotch. This is non-negotiable.
Sometimes I have to walk away. Literally. If I am stuck, I have to get up and go for a walk, or a drive if the weather is bad.
I have had to scrap ideas. Occasionally, I’ve gone back and finished what I started. One of my examples of this is Last Hymn. It took me over a year to write this song and I left it alone for a many months before I went back to it. I’m glad I did. It’s probably one of my favorite songs I’ve written.
While my songwriting process may be messy, my space can’t be. Right now my kitchen is my favorite writing space. I can’t sit down to create music if I have a pile of dishes in the sink and a messy space.
Earlier this month I finally finished the most recent song I’ve been working on. I got the idea from a coworker a few months ago. It took time to figure out what direction I wanted to take this. The inner critic still feels like I could change some things, but for now, I’m going to leave it.
I think it’s safe to say this is the beginning of more music. I can’t wait to share more of what I’m working on.
I’m Your Whiskey
(2017) Melissa Kay McCarthy
You come to me to quench your thirst
You come to me to numb your hurt
Whatever you crave
Whenever you’re thirsty
I’m your water and I’m your whiskey
You come to me when the sirens sound
You come to me and it all pours down
I keep you safe
I keep you warm
I’m your shelter and I’m your storm
I’m your darkness and I’m your flame
I’m your umbrella and I’m your rain
I make you want me until you need me
I’m your water and I’m your whiskey
You come to me when you crave my kiss
You come to me when your clench your fist
When you need my love
Or when you’re on a rampage
I’m your passion and I’m your rage
I’m the vice you can’t get over
I get you drunk and I help you sober up
(Repeat first verse)